Posted by Dr. Fareed Zakaria | 23 November 2012 | 3,959 times
Everybody is so full of energy and excitement. I used to think New York was an exciting place but I’ve decided, to get real excitement, you have to come to Nigeria. Really, it is true.
I have to confess I am very nervous. Because I discovered at my table I have one Emperor, one Former President, and one man who seems to be Chairman of everything. A few years ago, I spent time with the First Bank of Nigeria; wonderful people, wonderful event, and the chairman
was of course, Dr. Oba. I come to Airtel and I discover the Chairman is Dr. Oba. All I can tell you is, the next time I will be in Nigeria, whatever it is, whatever company event, the chairman will be Dr. Oba.
So if anyone is thinking of inviting me, now you know my terms in advance. First, you have to appoint him chairman then you can invite me. (Much laughter and applause)
It is a great honour and pleasure to be here and it is a wonderful moment to see what is happening in Africa because in Africa, one finds the thing that I went to America for: Optimism. Hope. You know, when I was a kid growing up in India, it was the 1970’s and America seemed to be the land of the future and it seemed to be the land where everything was possible and now you spend time in America and you discover people worry a lot. They worry about politics, economics, all kinds of things. In Europe, you find that they are a little nervous about what’s gonna happen; the changes that are coming forth.
In India, people have always complained and worried so that’s not changed that much. There’s a friend of mine who owns factories in China and India and I said to him ‘What’s the difference between the Chinese and the Indians”. He said, “It’s very simple. With my Chinese
managers, I find it difficult to get them to talk, to tell me what the problem is and what we can do to improve things. In India, I can’t get my managers to shut up”. And that difference says a great deal about the two cultures.
But what I find is when you go to Africa; when you go to Kenya, Ghana and perhaps above all, Nigeria, these days, you get a sense of real optimism and you get a feeling for the world. Now, I like this because I am by nature, an optimist. Many years ago, I was on a television programme debating somebody, and this guy was a grumpy old conservative and he said to me one day, “I don’t understand why you’re an optimist about everything.” He said let me explain to you how life is. He said this is how life goes. Most things don’t work out. So it’s much better to be a pessimist. Most of the time you’re right and the few times you’re wrong, it’s always a pleasant surprise because things went better than you thought. So I decided that at the end of the day,
that wasn’t my temperament and I look at the world with a glass half-full rather than half empty.
And so when I come to a place like Nigeria today, I feel as though you are seeing something that is in some ways more real than some of the gloom and doom in Europe and let me tell you why. If you look back over the last thirty years. If you look at my life as a simple example, think about how it went. In the late 1970’s and 80’s everyone was worrying; the World was very gloomy. Think about those times. It was inflation, unemployment, Watergate, Vietnam, the Cold War, all
kinds of problems, all over the World. I remember when I got to America in the early 1980’s somebody said to me, “Why have you come here?” There are no opportunities here; you should go back to India”. Well by two years later, the United States was in the midst of a big economic boom. And the reality was that the United States was growing from strength to strength and finally it was the Soviet Union that collapsed. But even then, the worrying continued. People worried that in the middle 1980’s, the US had accumulated too much debt and there was a trade deficit.
And so anytime a crisis would happen, it was interpreted as being a very big deal. I remember when I was teaching at Harvard and the Dow Jones dropped 22%, the highest drop it had ever seen to date, every one said, this is over. The great economists from all over were saying this is our generation’s version of the Great Depression. Actually, one week later, the market was back to normal, the economy had not even gone down and so the growth continued.
Then came a real recession in 1991-92 and everyone started worrying again. There was a fear that this meant permanent decline. The slogan of the ’92 campaign was ‘The Cold war is over and Germany and Japan won’ that is what Americans thought at the time.
Now we’re back to March of 2000, when the technology bubble burst, the Nasdaq crashed and 3 trillion dollars were wiped off the American Stock Exchange in one year.
What I’ve told you about the last 30 years is not that there isn’t a crash or a crisis but that there is always a recovery, there is always a return, there is enormous resilience in the system and now I’m gonna try to explain to you why that is. Why is it that the optimists have been right and the pessimists have been wrong for the last 30 years?
Why is it that every time we have these crises, we have recovery and we will recover from this one even in the western world? It’s because we’ve created a new global economy; a new system and people don’t really understand because we’re living in the middle of it. If you think about it, it is so much different from the world that we grew up in which was divided politically.
Violence has been coming own in Nigeria because we have no cold war super power rivalry to fuel this process so that’s the political stability that we have created.
Pillar number 2 is the economic convergence of all these countries playing the same game. There is enormous new participation in the world economy and enormous new avenues for growth. Political stability. Economic Convergence and the final point, Technology. We have gone through this great technological revolution that Airtel is in the heart of. Of course you know so much about this revolution; you live in it. But I just want to point out a few things: First think
about how recent t is. I’m going to do an experiment. I’m going to take away all the things you use to work; that you use to live your life, all your gadgets and internet. I have now taken you back to the dark ages of 1995. We’ve changed so much in the last 15 years and it’s a much more profound change than people realise. But we needed to move even further. The Satellite and Internet revolution then came in. When I look at Africa, what I’m struck by is the many similarities I see with India when I was growing up. That is to say, when India was going
through its first period of transition, people didn’t quite believe it. People wanted to attribute it to all kinds of things and it took a while for people to realise that their perceptions were wrong.
They had something called the ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’, which is where they expected India to grow at this very slow, anaemic rate of 2% but when they started to grow at 6% per cent people were surprised. I see something similar taking place in Africa right now. When there is real growth, and people are not quite sure what to make of it and then you point out that there is real growth and then they say ah yes, well it’s all natural resources and commodities.
Then you point out that that only accounts for 30 per cent of the growth in Africa and they say well, it must be a fad, it must be a bubble but the reality is that Africa has arrived and it has found a way to begin to make its way in the world.
I told you I was an optimist and I am but I am also a realist so let me tell you what challenges you face. The most important lesson I think you can take away from the rise of the Western World is you need good political institutions; you cannot rely on good emperors, good kings, and good presidents. You need political institutions that can actually order a society, organise its economy and govern and the quality and nature of these institutions is very important. If you
look at the difference between those countries and Europe is that countries in Europe created a system of the Rule of Law, of the Separation of Church and State and allowed a way therefore, for people to find a way to succeed themselves. In the rest of the world, the only way you could succeed was through the poor.
There was a historian in the Middle East who put it very well. He said, in the west, people get rich so that they can buy political influence, but in the rest of the world, people gain political
influence so that they can become rich.
A lot of this depends on institutions that depend on economics and politics. A government forced to rely on its people is going to be forced to enrich you and that is one challenge you face, because your government has not needed to enrich you to enrich itself.
The two fastest growing countries in the world over the last 40 years are Taiwan and South Korea, which both have absolutely no natural resources. The only thing that Taiwan has that can be called a natural resource are typhoons. But the slowest growing nations have been, alas, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela. Why? Because when a government has an easy path to resources, it doesn’t need to enrich you. This is why a good political institution should be put in place, because your government must be forced to represent you, then in representing you, must be forced to enrich you and then through taxation, it can enrich itself.
But it must never be the other way round; a government should not hope to enrich you after enriching itself because that would never work.
Never enrich yourself and then promise to enrich the people, because that promise never gets fulfilled.
And so Nigeria faces this problem of building institutions that force the government into the society to remould the society and together build themselves.
You need to think of this as a national project; you need to think of this as one nation because without that sense of a national project, economic development as a national reality becomes very difficult. The second issue is that you have to focus on issues of governance and democracy and corruption. I said I was optimistic but let me give you the sobering part of this.
The single biggest reason Africa is growing right now and growing really well is something economists call the low base effect. One thing we have learned about development is, it’s easy to go from $200 per capita GDP to $2000 per capita GDP. The government just has to stop doing really stupid things and what’s happening in Africa is the government has to start doing smart things. It has to start providing education, infrastructure, adequate power. I would say those are the three most important things. Your legal system has to be modernised, your political system has to be modernised.
That tells you this is not easy work. Now you’re getting into the harder part of how to make this work and those are the sobering lessons that you have to take back home and think about. But let me close by taking you back to my optimism. I’ll tell you why at the end of the day, when I see all the problems of the world, why I’m optimistic, because really it’s what I see in this room, it’s what I see when I travel around Africa or India or all other parts of the world and particularly in the rural parts of these countries, you see this extraordinary rise of humanity, of human talent.
Everyone says we’re in this new economy, this knowledge economy where education and human talent is being unleashed but if that’s the case, then we’re in for a great, grand and very pleasant surprise because for the last 300 years, the world has been run economically, politically, intellectually by 10% of the world’s population. That’s it. That is where you have all the businessmen, the statesmen, the artists, the painters, the adventurers, the philosophers; but now,
everyone is joining in this game and who knows what that will mean.
There is so much human talent in Africa that is being unlocked, and you see it being unlocked and you see it because you live it. Your children are getting so much better educated, their friends are getting educated. I see it when I go to India, I see it when I go to China and there is an extraordinary, unintended process of beneficent consequences from this. Good things are gonna flow in ways we don’t know. I’m not gonna care whether some Chinese, Indian or Nigerian
invents the new heart disease medicine. I know I am gonna be saved because of it and there will be so many of those things happening because now there aren’t just a few hundred people participating in this process. You have a few billion and that change has just begun and it’s gonna hit Africa just as it has hit Asia. Once it hits Africa, it would have hit the whole world, and then we really will be in a new and much better world.
Thank you all very much.
•Editor’s Note: This is the text of the speech delivered by CNN anchor, Dr. Fareed Zakaria (seen in photo flanked by Airtel Nigeria Executive Director Deepak Srivastava [left] and Rajan Swaroop), at the Airtel Night of Influence, Eko Hotel & Suites, Lagos, last Sunday, Nov. 18.
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